Monday, February 11, 2013

Finding Your Place

 (My daughter in her younger days)

My daughter is currently struggling through her pre-teen years. While my son seemed to sail, untouched, through middle school, my daughter is like the poster-child for stereotypical made-for-movie 7th grade. There are cliques and popular kids and snotty kids and bullies. There's name-calling and gossip and enough meanness to make the bus ride your proverbial hell.

She craves belonging. She wants the right clothes, the pretty hair, the perfect skin, the athletic ability and smooth social skills that make it seem so easy for everyone else. I can't tell if she wants to stand out in a good way or just blend in, but what she doesn't want is to be a target. She doesn't want to be different. There are times in life when uniqueness is prized, but not in middle school. Not among her classmates, anyway.

She can't believe that I understand this, that I, too, struggle with this same thing. Since finishing up school, I've begun looking for a home for some of my stronger short stories. Lit magazines are something I've never really explored before. Until the last two years I probably had never even cracked one open.

But now I am reading, both the fiction in them and the guidelines for submission. Nearly every one says, "Get a feel for what we publish before sending in something. Make sure your work fits in. We strongly suggest you read a few back issues of our magazine before submitting."

I get it. You don't want to send a horror story to a family-oriented parenting magazine. But lit mags... I mean, mostly they just publish run-of-the-mill literary short stories.

What does it mean to fit in? Do I have to stop writing like me, in my own voice and style, and start conforming to the masses? Okay, I've read a bunch of stories now and what I can tell is that none of them - across the board - are like mine. I find them snoozy, mostly. Lots of narrative, little action, little dialogue. There are a few truly unique ones out there, but not just a little unique - I mean radically experimental.

But none like mine.

And shouldn't that be good? Shouldn't it be the way agents for novels are crying out for unique voices, for something that sounds different?

So why isn't it?

I don't have the answers, anymore than I can answer my daughter why it isn't okay in her school to be unique.

What I tell her, every day, is to be true to herself. Not to be what others want her to be, but to be who she is, wholly and entirely.

It's good advice for life. I hope it's good for writing, too.


  1. Gah! I do not look forward to this part of being a Dad at all, but I can see it coming.

    Your daughter is very lucky to have someone as thoughtful as yourself for a Mom.

    1. It's strange how hugely different it is between kids. The same school for my son and daughter, but entirely different experiences. And it comes much sooner than you'd like.

      I'm not sure my daughter always thinks she's lucky to have me, but I guess that's part of the age as well.

  2. I totally feel for you. My older son had the same problems. It got so bad that eventually we had to change schools, but my younger son breezed through middle school. But I'm worried about my daughter as she enters into the preteen years in a girls world.I've tried to encourage her to be friends with lots of different people so that if someone isn't treating her nice she can go be with someone else. So far so good, but she is only 10.

    I hope your daughter can find a way to fit in but still keep her own voice that is truly a hard thing to do at any age.

    1. It's a fine line to walk as a parent, knowing when to say, "This is life and you need to learn the tools to deal with this," and when to say, "Let's get you the heck out of here."

      In an ideal world, I'd just climb on the bus with her and knock the kids out. :)

  3. I'd say you're on the right track. Be true to yourself in life and in your writing. Maybe your style doesn't fit those literary mags, but some day soon, you will find the magazines that DO fit your style, or an editor who loves what she reads and takes a chance on your stuff.

    My daughter is in middle school, too, and we've had a few meltdowns - bullying was one, an over zealous boy who wouldn't stop pestering her, hair and clothing dilemmas, etc. I think it's just that age. I hated junior high. I felt like the ugly duckling. I also tell my daughter not to rent out too much space in her head to those who really don't matter - the girl who calls her names or makes fun of her, the boy who never talks to her, etc., etc. They're not thinking about her, so she doesn't need to waste her time and energy thinking about them, either. Easier said than done, though, as even adults get caught up in this trap!

    1. We say the same things. And also, I've asked if she'd want to be friends with these kids if she could, and she says no. They're snotty and rude. So good for her for knowing that! But still - it stings, right?

  4. We had these same struggles at that age, and so did our son. It's heart wrenching to see, because all kids want to do is fit in, right? Who wants to be a target for bullies? And who wants to see their kids go through these very same struggles that we did? Our son is grown up now, and I think he's grown into a compassionate young man because of the bullying and torment of not fitting in.

    1. Maybe part of the heart-wrenching part is knowing you not only can't protect them from everything bad, but that you shouldn't. That this is like the refining fire that makes them better people in this world.

      I'm so glad your son came out of it in the best way possible.